Early morning. I’m crouched on the beach at Rosemarkie on the Black Isle, running my fingers through a patch of red sand that the sea has exposed in amongst the shingle. The tiny grains shimmer in the sunlight, not just reds but oranges and white, golds and silvers, greens and pale yellows. The few hundred grains of sand on my fingertip alone represent millions of years of geological history, each a fragment from a different part of the tale, each a remnant of deep time.
I’m astonished by the richness of this beach. The shingle and boulders gleam so brightly with large crystals, pyrites, garnets and mica schist that reflect the light with an intensity rarely found on the beaches further south on the East coast of Scotland. I’m not surprised that the local geologist, Hugh Miller (1802 – 1856), described how as a young boy he would “fling myself down on the shore… and bethink me, as I passed my fingers along the larger grains, of the heaps of gems in Aladdin’s cavern, or of Sinbad’s valley of diamonds.” (My Schools and Schoolmasters, 1854)
I thought this was perhaps a young boy’s imagination run wild, but now that I’m here, close to his local patch, I understand exactly how his fascination with geology began, in amongst these ‘gems and jewels’. Hugh Miller is why I am here – much of my time over last winter has been spent organising and running the first ever Hugh Miller Writing Competition; today was to be the awards ceremony and associated celebrations in Miller’s hometown of Cromarty.
The competition encouraged entries inspired by the geological and landscape writings of Miller, and was run by the Scottish Geodiversity Forum, in partnership with The Friends of Hugh Miller and other organisations1. The judges were looking for entries in prose and poetry, from adults and under-16s, and we were genuinely bowled over by the high quality of many of the entries. Clearly, Hugh Miller is a source of inspiration to many, even today, and for this reason alone his legacy should, I hope, continue to grow and flourish for generations to come.
Having not been to Cromarty since I was a child, I was curious about the village and slightly unsure of what to expect. For many, of course, the Cromarty Firth is the domain of oil rigs and shipping, and they certainly made their presence felt on the drive across from Rosemarkie. I caught myself wondering many times as the afternoon passed what Miller himself would have made of all this, and the rather in-your-face changes that his birthplace has undergone over the past century or more.
However, on reaching Cromarty itself it was as though a magic spell was cast – the obvious industrial imprint on the landscape fell away, and in its place was a lightness of touch, a cool edge to a spring breeze, and an unexpectedly strong sense of Hugh Miller’s presence. As our prose winner in the competition, local Cromarty teacher Jane Verburg, said in her piece: “Sometimes I sense you about the place. I have walked the Vennels and felt the fringes of your shepherd’s plaid brush my arm. I have been at the corner of Church Street at Lammastide and seen you heading off to the Clach Malloch, hammers stuffed into your pockets. Once I saw you and Lydia up in the woods, giggling.”2
It wasn’t the first time I had experienced this sensation – and don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe in ghosts – but there is something about Miller’s strength of spirit in his writing that weaves in and out of your head once you’ve read his work and, quite simply, he won’t let go. I wrote a piece back in the autumn, when I spun headlong into reading as much Miller as I could in preparation for the competition (I’ll post it on here); it was as though I had brought the man himself with me on holiday. He began walking with me in the October countryside around Blair Atholl, encouraging me to ‘make a right use of your eyes’, and showing me intricacies in the landscape I might otherwise have missed.
The day warmed under deep blue skies, and our winners gathered at noon to be taken on a tour of Hugh Miller’s museum and birthplace cottage. The cottage is quaint and pretty, its thatched roof stands out as the only one left among the surrounding houses. The churchyard where Miller carved many a headstone in his early career as a stonemason – including the last one he ever made, for his young daughter – is just a few hundred yards further down the road. A swallow nips and darts across the street as I make my way to the Old Brewery, where the awards ceremony and a talk given by myself were to take place.
At this point, I feel I should extend my thanks to one man in particular – Secretary of The Friends of Hugh Miller, Martin Gostwick. Bitten by the Miller bug just like myself, it is down to the enthusiasm and hard work of Martin and his lovely wife Frieda that Miller’s legacy has been rebuilt in recent years in the village of Cromarty. They have helped restore much of what Miller would recognise as his own place, his own Cromarty, in the museum and cottage, and The Friends of Hugh Miller – a charity set up by Martin – has the potential to go from strength to strength. I was given a lovely welcome by Martin, and indeed many of the members of the charity and other people in the audience that day.
We were delighted to hand out twelve awards for the Writing Competition, including two under-16 winners; full details of the winning entries and entrants can be found at www.scottishgeology.com/hughmiller. The entries provided new insights into Miller and his legacy which deserve far more exploration than I can do justice to here; the Forum and the Friends will be looking into one or two potential competition spin-offs soon.
Once my talk was finished, our winners and their families were taken on a walk along the Cromarty shoreline by local geologist, Dr Peter Scott. I decided, once my own family had headed back to our tent at Rosemarkie, to explore the village further and visit the man himself (or, at least, the statue of Miller that stands on a large pedestal on the hill above Cromarty, looking out along the coastline he loved). The blossom trees are bent double under the weight of flowers, and there are bluebells everywhere. When I reach the top of the wee hill, a crow is perched on Miller’s head, determined to ruin every photo I try to take. I can’t help but feel Miller himself would have been laughing at my frustration. Move the crow eventually did, 20 minutes later…
When I arrive at a local restaurant to meet Martin, Frieda, and some of the judges and competition winners for dinner, I am told with great excitement that one of the entrants found a fossil fish on the beach during the walk with Peter. Not just any fossil fish, but one of the best specimens to come off the Cromarty shoreline in years. I am lucky enough to be shown it – the size of a small dinner plate, the fish is preserved complete (a delight in itself) and the scales are clearly defined. A glass or two of wine later and we are discussing the possibility that Miller had a hand in this particular moment – after all, what were the chances…?
1 The Scottish Geodiversity Forum: www.scottishgeodiversityforum.org
The Friends of Hugh Miller: www.thefriendsofhughmiller.org.uk
Full list of associated partners for the competition available at www.scottishgeology.com/hughmiller
2 Learn to Make a Right Use of Your Eyes by Jane Verburg, 2016: Full text available www.scottishgeology.com/hughmiller